Denis Waitley wrote: “Time is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day. Rich people can’t buy more hours. Scientists can’t invent new minutes. And you can’t save time to spend it on another day.” But this is only partly true because sometimes death comes suddenly and unexpectedly. Young people sometimes die, and old people always die. The past three years have been sufficient proof of that – deaths linked to COVID-19 have left nearly 150 000 children orphaned in South Africa, according to UNICEF SA. Many others have lost one of their parents, or a primary or secondary caregiver.

When a child experiences the death of a parent, it is a traumatic experience. There is no “worst age” to lose a parent, but people instinctively pay more attention to the well-being of smaller children. Older or even adult children often hide their feelings, so adults might believe that they do not need support. Unfortunately, teachers do not always have the capacity or time to look after the psychosocial needs of grieving children.

Research shows that the early loss of parents usually increases the probability of inadequate child care​​ and worsens the family’s economic status. In many South African families, this also means increased pressures for the grieving child to take on the responsibilities of the dead parent and to further isolate from friends. In some cases, the death of a parent could result in the child’s poor psychosocial well-being, changes in behaviour, increase in stress and sleep disturbances, lead to anxiety and post-traumatic stress symptoms, lower self-esteem, and decline in academic progress. A stressed or misbehaving child adds to the pressures on the remaining parent or family members who want to help the child grieve, while they are also managing their own grief.

When the surviving parents believe children are not capable of understanding death or successfully dealing with the emotions and fears it brings (or are incapable of facing the child’s sadness), they tend to avoid the topic at home. Children find it more difficult to say goodbye or understand that someone is never coming back, and the reasons why someone has died. They need to know what is happening, and that it is acceptable to show emotions and to talk about the person who has died. Children can feel a variety of emotions following a parent’s death, including anger and guilt. They need to know that death is never the child’s fault. It is also normal that the child may think they see or dream about their deceased parent. They don’t have to forget about their parent or grandparents who are no longer alive.

Asking “are you OK?” will usually not give you a true indication of the child’s well-being, under normal circumstances nor after they have lost a parent. The best way to make sure that the child is coping with the grief is to keep track of irregularities, involvement in activities, or interaction with friends and family. Some of the symptoms of grief are normal but in combination and at amplified levels, these could be indications that the child is struggling:

  • Bedwetting
  • Anger
  • Lack of emotion or uncontrolled crying spells
  • Fatigue, sleepiness or insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Physical symptoms, like muscle tension, unexplained pain, or stomach aches
  • Diminished self-esteem
  • Expressions of shame, guilt, or loneliness
  • Having trouble focusing on play or tasks
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

Ideally, normal grief does not need clinical intervention but when children become constantly sad and no longer enjoy the activities or food that they used to love, their sadness can become a chronic and incapacitating condition that is known as complicated grief. Studies have shown that orphaned children in particular are at high risk when it comes to the development of complicated grief. Prolonged sickness and caring for a sick parent have been shown to increase the chances of the development of complicated grief. When caregivers notice signs of complicated grief, they must take steps to ensure timely intervention, by involving a school counselor or psychologist.

The pain associated with the loss of a parent will likely never go away completely but the surviving parent and their children will find reasons to be happy again. Allow enough time and offer support, even if it is by spending time with them or showing them that you care.

For more information about handling grief or supporting loved ones with their sadness and loss of a loved one, visit our website at